Apple serves up rack-mountable server

While aimed at the education and graphics markets--the company's specialty--the Xserve is also designed to handle common business-computing tasks.

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Jobs serves up Xserve
Steve Jobs, CEO, Apple
CUPERTINO, Calif.--Apple Computer on Tuesday unveiled Xserve, its first rack-mountable server.

Although the machines are aimed at environments where Macs are plentiful--places like schools and graphics departments--the Xserve is also designed to be a good server for common business-computing tasks such as handling Windows files, e-mail and Web pages. Included software can check on the health and status of a drive and is designed to predict when a failure might occur.

"It's totally not like (Apple's previous servers)," said Peter Glaskowsky, editor in chief of the Microprocessor Report, an influential industry newsletter. "It's a serious server."

Glaskowsky said the fact that Apple has a custom chip to speed input/output functions shows the company means business. He also noted that the timing is right, with Apple now using the Unix-based Mac OS X.

"They never had a suitable (operating system)," Glaskowsky said, referring to Apple's past efforts to bring Unix to the Mac.

The pizza box-size Xserve, which has a sleek metal case, is offered in two standard models: one with a single 1GHz G4 processor and the other with dual 1GHz processors, both with L2 and L3 high-speed cache memory.

The models, which are available as of Tuesday and start shipping next month, are both 1.75-inch 1U servers, a reference to how much space they take up in a rack. The entry-level model comes with 256MB of Double Data Rate memory and sells for $2,999, while the dual-processor model comes with 512MB of DDR memory and sells for $3,999.

Both models come standard with a 60GB hard drive in one of four "hot-swappable" drive bays that can be filled with up to 480GB of storage. Hot-swappable drives can be changed without first having to shut down a system. Both models also include two 1-gigabit-per-second Ethernet ports.

"This is the fastest Mac architecture we've ever built," Apple CEO Steve Jobs said.

Jobs acknowledged that Apple is not thought of as a business-computing powerhouse, joking that people are more likely to associate the Mac with the USS Enterprise than with enterprise computing.

Jobs also said Apple is "humble" as it enters the market. "For everything we know, there are 10 things we don't know," he said.

The company faces cheaper competition in a well-established market. Quantum's Snap Server 4100 has a $4,299 list price for a 1U model with 480GB of capacity. Dell Computer's PowerVault 715N costs $3,928 for a 480GB model. These models don't feature two processors, however.

More sophisticated two-processor servers, such as IBM's x330, cost more. An x330 with 1GB of memory, two 1.4GHz Pentium III processors and two 160GB SCSI hard drives costs $4,766.

Competition or no, however, IDC analyst Jean Bozman said the move makes sense.

"It really looks like they have done their homework," Bozman said, calling the features Apple included a laundry list of what customers want in a thin entry-level server.

Bozman said Apple has a good initial market for the products in its existing base of customers who have been buying servers from other companies. The move could help Apple drive sales and profits, she said, despite the fact that the company is not likely to make a major dent in the $50 billion-plus server market.

The next step, according to Bozman, will be for Apple to convince more software developers that its servers are worth supporting.

Apple has won some endorsements from established enterprise companies. Hewlett-Packard will ensure that its OpenView management software can control the Apple servers--an important step in fitting in to the computing infrastructure of larger companies. And Oracle said it will create a version of its new 9i Real Application Clusters (RAC) database software for Mac OS X. The RAC software lets administrators spread a database across several lower-end products instead of hosting it on a single, much more powerful server--the most commonly used method.

Apple also previewed a future storage device, the Xserve RAID, a 5.25-inch thick cabinet that can contain 14 hard drives for a total capacity of 1.68 terabytes. The system has two 2-gigabit-per-second Fibre Channel connections, a high-speed connection technology for communicating with servers.

News.com's Stephen Shankland contributed to this report.